The 36-year-old remembers growing up in Edmonton to parents who migrated from India — the arts were not a “feasible livelihood” according to her Hindu mom and dad.
“As much as it pains me, my parents were right!” laughs Shraya, who now has two books, an anthology of poetry and a children’s book under her belt. She’s also part of the electronic band Too Attached with her brother. They opened for Tegan and Sara on their Canadian tour last year.
The struggles of being a young person of colour who had to claw her way into publishing sticks with Shraya, whose first book God Loves Hair was self-published in 2009. She went on to a second printing (with help from her parents) and then Arsenal Pulp Press in Vancouver picked it up for a third edition. Since then, she’s produced more books with the publisher.
“Those early years of my career were tough,” she said. “I didn’t know about the obstacles I faced. I didn’t have the language of being racialized and about white resilience [that white people don’t give up as easily due to their privileged status].”
That’s why she’s launched an imprint — VS. Books with Arsenal — to offer a deep mentorship and publication to a writer of Indigenous background or a person of colour who is living in Canada and between the ages of 18 and 24. Shraya will provide monthly feedback as well as advice on writing grants, promotion, touring and the publishing business. The deadline is September 15, with one writer chosen at the end of October. Publication is slated for spring 2019.
“Last year, I mentored nine writers — one a month,” she said. “It was an amazing experience. But the one thing that comes out of it was always this question: how do I get published?”
‘Being rejected means being dismantled’
Shraya, who is transgender and works at Toronto’s George Brown College as a human rights adviser, points out that when you are an Indigenous or POC artist, rejection of your work (i.e. grants and the like) can trigger heavier emotional consequences.
“It took me a long time to see why my white peers were able to bounce back much quicker and keep going. I wasn’t. It’s because you deal with so much racism, as well as homophobia, and challenges growing up, being rejected means being dismantled.”
Self-publishing her first book — about growing up in Edmonton and navigating her gender and sexuality — gave her agency.
“I would tell young writers not to be shy about finding alternative means of producing work,” she said. “Self-publishing is a legitimate form of expression. A couple of years ago I made a zine, The Magnificent Malls of Edmonton … all 120 copies sold out in two days. I made it. And I didn’t have to experience the institutional rejection [of trying to get funding].”
Also, Shraya would advise POC and Indigenous writers to nurture their own resilience — to realize that rejection in the funding arena is two-fold: “Yes the racism is real but also, the rejection is not personal.”
Having sat on juries, Shraya realized that sometimes there are administrative concerns at play when considering projects.
In fact, self-publishing that first project was a kind of gift.
Advice: keep going
“No one wants to publish a first-time writer,” she explained. “In funding my own projects, I didn’t have to answer to any institution.”
Now, with more confidence, feeling bad about that kind of rejection lasts a few hours.
“I would tell young artists to just keep going and keep applying,” she said. “Now I apply for anything and everything.”
Shraya has had some measure of success as an artist but there is always the gnawing desire to please her parents. To make them proud.
They went to the Tegan and Sara concert in Edmonton last year. It was a little nerve-wracking for Shraya.
“There I was in a blue sequin outfit talking about trans issues and we always close the show with this coming out song ‘Girl, It’s Your Time.'” (By the way, Shraya is putting out her first solo album, which launches July 7 at the Art Gallery of Ontario).
Her parents didn’t say much after that concert, but the next day, as they were all having dinner and chatting about the concert and one of the songs, her father piped in.
“He said, ‘Oh, that’s the one about backstabbers, right?’ And I said to him, ‘You listen to the songs?'”
The response of Shraya’s dad was profound: “I listen to EVERY word.”
Learn more about the mentorship program here.
June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.
Photo by N Maxwell Lander via Vivek Shraya/Arsenal Pulp Press